Portland's first public inquest in almost 20 years begins this week, and the man who will conduct it, District Attorney Mike Schrunk, has said repeatedly that the six jurors selected for the three-day quasi-judicial hearing will not be allowed to do what a lot of people want them to do: pass judgment on the March 28 shooting of James Jahar Perez at a traffic stop.
"That's not the purpose," says John Bradley, a top Schrunk deputy.
However, two top attorneys for the Oregon Legislature whom WW asked to read the state law authorizing the inquest came to a different conclusion.
Joan Robinson and Virginia Vanderbilt are attorneys for the Legislative Counsel's office, which writes and interprets legislation for state lawmakers. They say the law unequivocally allows the jurors to decide whether the officer's actions were justified.
"Yes, I think they could look at the question of whether a police officer was legally using the force... and make the determination 'Yes, he was,' or 'No, he wasn't,'" says Robinson, the state's chief deputy legislative counsel.
Schrunk's efforts to narrowly focus the scope of the public inquest is of more political interest than legal consequence. Only a criminal grand jury can charge an officer with a crime, and the grand jury that considered Officer Jason Sery's actions in the Perez shooting has already found insufficient evidence to do so.
However, Vanderbilt, a senior deputy legislative counsel, can't see how Schrunk can block jurors from passing judgment on the officer's actions. "I don't know where that authority would come from," she says.
The inquest statute specifically allows jurors to deem "manner of death" including whether it is the result of justified "legal intervention"--including a cop's "legal use of force." Alternatively, jurors can call the death "accidental," "undetermined"--or "homicide."
Bradley says the disagreement over the statute underlines what his office has said all along: The inquest is a clumsy tool that is poorly designed to achieve public oversight. For instance, if witnesses' testimony were to be used to judge Sery, then they should also be cross-examined and have their credibility challenged, something that is not planned for this week's inquest, he says.
"This is just not the right vehicle to do that," says Bradley.
If the inquest jury does decide to judge Sery's actions, and finds them not justified by law, it would be a slap in the face to Schrunk's office--as has happened once before.
The last time Schrunk held an inquest was after the 1985 death of Lloyd "Tony" Stevenson caused by a Portland police officer's chokehold, and in that case the jury did indeed find the cop to be guilty of "criminally negligent homicide." A criminal grand jury subsequently declined to prosecute.